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The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius
Member Name: bdgummer
The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius
Advantages: An absorbing account concerning the personal lives of the early Emperors.
Disadvantages: Some questions over the reliability of information presented.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillis, more commonly known as Suetonius, was, to the best of our knowledge, born in 69 A.D, a year in which the Roman Empire was plagued by instability and which has become known as the 'Year of Four Emperors'. Son of a Roman knight, Suetonius quickly rose to prominence during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117 - 138 AD) rising to the position of chief secretary.
As the name implies, in The Twelve Caesars Suetonius chronicles the lives of the first Twelve Caesars of the Roman Empire from the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, spanning from Julius Caesar to Domitian. What stands this out from other Roman histories, such as the work by Livy on the history of Rome from its founding, is that Suetonius had firsthand knowledge of the period of which he is commenting on having lived under the rule of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. In addition, during his tenure as Chief Secretary to Hadrian, Suetonius gained access to the Imperial and Senatorial archives providing a wealth of information on the lives of Augustus, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Apparently Suetonius also took great care with facts and had the good fortune of being able to interview eye witnesses of the events of these early Emperors as well.
What results is a fascinating insight into the lives of the rulers of an empire which in Augustus' time is estimated to have had a population of upwards of 55 million. Whilst skipping over most of the military aspects of the period, such as the outward expansion of the empire, Suetonius instead focuses on the personal lives of the emperors which paint a terrifying picture of brutality and sadism. With rulers such as the seemingly mentally instable Caligula and the psychotic Nero it begs the question of how the Roman Empire survived quite so long as it did.
Scandalous anecdotes abound in the chapters concerning the more notorious Emperors with some modern commentators disputing them for historical truth or just Suetonius reporting rumours. Whatever the case, they certainly make for interesting reading even if the author has embellished on reality. This focus on the indecent acts of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero however, has the negative effect of drawing attention away from the less infamous of the Caesars in the latter half of the book, such as those involved in the power struggle during the 'Year of Four Emperors' and those following, which do not seem to get as much attention from Suetonius.
I would also question the accessibility of the book for those who do not have some sort of understanding of the history of the period. Lots of historical events are passed over in very small detail such as Caesar's defeat of Pompey in the Civil War and Augustus' generals' campaigns in Germany.
Despite this I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest on the subject. While I would not suggest it to be the best place to start in pursuing an interest in Roman history it is certainly well worth it if you have an attraction to the period.
Summary: An interesting glimpse into the early rulers of the Roman Empire.
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